Wearing the veil in schools: the debate continues – Clive Sheldon QC
27 January 2016
Last week the Prime Minister entered into the debate on the wearing of veils by Muslim women in schools. This week, it is the turn of the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshire. The Chief Inspector has said that:
The Prime Minister and Secretary of State are right to give their backing to schools and other institutions which insist on removing face coverings when it makes sense to do so.
I am concerned that some heads and principals who are trying to restrict the wearing of the full veil in certain circumstances are coming under pressure from others to relax their policy. I want to assure these leaders that they can rely on my full backing for the stance they are taking.
I have also made clear to my inspectors that where leaders are condoning the wearing of the face veil by staff members or by pupils when this is clearly hindering communication and effective teaching, they should give consideration to judging the school as inadequate.
I am determined to ensure that discrimination, including on the grounds of gender, has no place in our classrooms. We want our schools, whether faith schools or non-faith schools, to prepare their pupils equally for life in 21st century Britain. We need to be confident our children’s education and future prospects are not being harmed in any way.
What are the legal issues for schools?
The legal issues for schools are interesting, and require careful thought.
The starting point is Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which provides that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Where a student wishes to wear the niqab (the veil that covers a female’s face), this will amount to the manifestation of her religion. Whether or not this freedom has been interfered with, or limited, will depend firstly on whether or not she is able to attend a different school at which wearing the niqab is permitted.
In the leading case dealing with Article 9 and school uniforms — R (Begum) v. Governors of Denbigh High School  UKHL 15, the majority of the House of Lords held that there was no limitation or interference with a student’s Article 9 right to wear the jilbab (a body length dress), where it was possible for her to attend other local schools and wear the jilbab. See, in particular, paragraph 23 of Lord Bingham’s speech:
The Strasbourg institutions have not been at all ready to find an interference with the right to manifest religious belief in practice or observance where a person has voluntarily accepted an employment or role which does not accommodate that practice or observance and there are other means open to the person to practise or observe his or her religion without undue hardship or inconvenience.
Similarly, in R(X) v. HeadTeacher of Y School  EWHC 298 (Admin), a case which concerned a female student who wished to wear the niqab at school, but this was refused. In that case, Mr Justice Silber held at paragraph 40 that:
“I therefore conclude that the claimant’s article 9 rights have not been interfered with as she could have accepted the offer of a place at school Q which achieved good academic results and which is easy for her to get to and most significantly where she could wear her niqab. I add that the claimant has not adduced any evidence or made any submission to indicate that this school is an unacceptable school for her.”
If there are no other schools that the student could attend that would permit her to wear the niqab, the prohibition could interfere with her Article 9 rights, and the analysis would then turn to what the rationale was for the prohibition. Article 9 allows for justification where the aim of the interference with the freedom to manifest religion is “in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” This requires the prohibition to further a legitimate aim, and for the prohibition to be proportionate.
If the argument being forward by the school for the prohibition on wearing the niqab is ‘educational’, that may be difficult to sustain. How, for instance, are the ‘rights and freedoms’ of other students affected by the wearing by the student of a niqab? Indeed, that was the view (obiter) of Silber J. in the X v. Y case. In that case, a number of reasons were put forward by the school for why the niqab could not be worn. One of the reasons was the educational one: see paragraph 84:
“The case for the school is that by wearing the niqab, the claimant would hamper her learning and the ability of the school to teach her for the reasons which I have explained in paragraph 64 (f) to (i) above. The head teacher explains that effective learning depends on pupils being able to interact with each other and in particular with the teacher. She says that effective teaching depends on the teacher being able to see if the pupils understand what she is being taught and if she is paying attention as well as discovering if she is distressed or enthusiastic.”
At paragraph 90, Mr Justice Silber. stated that:
“There is no evidence that the learning by the claimant’s classmates has been impaired or adversely affected by a girl in their class wearing a niqab. In consequence, the school cannot rely on this ground relating to educational factors under article 9(2).”
There may be other reasons, however, that could justify the interference.
In X v. Y, the Court held that interference would have been justified for other reasons: e.g. pressure on other Muslim girls. Similarly, in Begum, where this was a particular concern that would have justified the interference. This approach is supported by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of SAS v. France (2015) 60 E.H.R.R. 11 (the prohibition on concealing one’s face in public was held to be justified and proportionate insofar as it sought to guarantee the conditions of “living together”).
Before, therefore, schools rush to follow the approach suggested by the Prime Minister, and now supported by the Chief Inspector, they should think carefully. Schools should consider the availability of other schools in the area that the student could attend and would allow her to wear the veil. Schools should ask themselves why the prohibition is required, and see how this fits with the potential justifications afforded by Article 9(2). Otherwise, they run the risk of a successful human rights challenge.